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Pick of the day: Wal-Mart vs. Whole Foods

In 1976, a wine competition in Paris was organized among experts to test which tasted better: wines from France or California? In what Slate has called the "collective slurp heard round the world," the California wines bested their snobby French counterparts, and, today, the Judgment of Paris, as it is known, is cited as a major launch pad for California's wine industry.

In the new issue of The Atlantic, a similar kind of contest is chronicled in Austin, but not involving wine. Instead, the contest is between grocery stores, between one institution with a reputation for an effete or upper-crust clientele (Whole Foods) and another that is often, and unfairly, painted as entirely low-brow and ruthless (Wal-Mart). The story, "The Great Grocery Smackdown," by Corby Kummer, an Atlantic senior editor, comes in the wake of another interesting piece in the New Yorker scrutinizing Whole Foods and its holotropic breathing co-founder John Mackey.

At the outset of his Atlantic piece, Kummer describes, in a somewhat snooty air, his shock that Wal-Mart has recently launched a campaign to buy and sell locally produced food from farms located near its stores. The big box behemoth, the reporter explains, is trying to help farmers, especially dairy farmers, cope with depressed prices so they can stay in business.

As Kummer becomes more intrigued, he wants to know how the food at Wal-Mart stacks up against Whole Foods. So, Kummer goes shopping at both stores -- his Great Grocery Smackdown. It is in his venture to Wal-Mart where Kummer unwittingly makes the reader laugh, though not necessarily at Wal-Mart:

The sticking points were fresh goat cheese, which flummoxed the nice sales people (we found some Alouette brand, hidden), and chicken breasts. I could find organic meat, but no breasts without “up to 12 percent natural chicken broth” added—an attempt to inject flavor and add weight. I wasn’t happy with the suppliers, either: Tyson predominated. I bought Pilgrims Pride, but was suspicious. The bill was $126.02.

A bit out-of-touch? Kummer can't help himself, but that's okay. His piece does make a reader wince at how something as basic as chicken has to be injected to make it taste good and last long.

Toward the end of his piece, he gathers 16 critics, bloggers, and other food connoisseurs for the Great Grocery Smackdown in Austin. But, you'll have to read the story to find out how the contest ends.

By Ian Shapira  | February 17, 2010; 8:55 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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